When you sit and think about things for which you’re thankful, things like "grief" or "pain" probably don't come close to the top of the list. They likely don't even make the list.
But this year, that’s just what I’m thankful for: grief and pain — and God’s unending grace, which is always the cushion at the bottom of the fall.
Some people say there’s no better a place to start than from the bottom, because there, you have a firm foundation from which to push off and propel yourself upward.
What better a foundation from which to rebuild could there be than God?
STAN ('stupid tumor, acoustic neuroma')
It’s been a tumultuous three years for me and my family.
My husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor in November 2015. The news, which came just as we were closing on our first home and dealing with other issues, was staggering. It was too big to wrap our heads around.
The tumor was not malignant, but it was in a dangerous place and would need to be removed.
We weighed the various roads of treatment options over and over again. All of them eventually ended up arriving at the same destination: brain surgery.
My husband, who I’ll call “R,” worked the entire year with the tumor hanging over his head — almost quite literally.
We were still reeling from the news, and I from some pretty exhaustive marital difficulties that we’d been going through literally days prior to closing on our home.
I’d prayed for R — a non-Christian — for the duration of our 14-year relationship, and for his salvation, but my prayers seemed to fall flat each and every time.
Both of us went into autopilot mode and simply maintained for nearly 12 months after the news of the tumor. It was all either one of us could do. We have two children who depend on us entirely — what other option was there?
The surgery arrived quickly in November 2016. It should have been easy: a two- or three-hour surgery removing the tumor that had grown on R’s vestibular nerve (which controls the brain’s ability to hear and maintain balance) and a two-day stay in the hospital at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore for post-surgical monitoring.
Nobody wants brain surgery, but as far as brain surgery goes, this is the one you apparently want to have if you’re having it.
The surgery turned into a nine-hour surgery rife with complications. The tumor had exploded in size prior to R’s previous MRI and had fully weaved its snaky tendrils around and through his vestibular nerve. It also wrapped its arms around R’s facial nerve.
Every "worst case scenario" — besides death — had occurred during and after this surgery.
As a result of the tumor's growth, R’s surgeons had to remove his both his vestibular and facial nerves entirely on one side of his head, which resulted in complete unilateral hearing loss and permanent facial paralysis — like a Bell’s palsy.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the severing of the vestibular nerve resulted in incredible balance issues for R. For the first few weeks after his surgery, he could barely walk without nearly falling on his face.
Then came the debilitating post-surgery migraines that would ultimately turn out to be a permanent condition. The cognitive issues that resulted in the tumor pressing on various parts of the brain throughout its growth.
Then came the facial surgery to repair his eyelid (to save sight in that eye) and mouth (to cultivate better speech patterns) — both of which had drooped at an alarming rate after the facial nerve had been severed.
R was supposed to be out of work for four to six weeks. He was out for four months instead. When he returned in March 2017, he lasted about eight weeks before succumbing to near-complete exhaustion.
Where’s God in all this?
All the while, I kept getting angrier and angrier. I was gladly and effortlessly caring for R, but I was angry. I was confidently steering the ship of the house, but I was angry. I was treasuring my time caring for the children, cooking meals every night of the week for the family, and attending church regularly, but I was angry. I was so angry. I was angry at R for the unresolved marital issues prior to the brain tumor diagnosis, which led to the marital strife we were still experiencing. I was angry at myself for being angry with a brain surgery patient. I was angry at God for letting all of these things happen to me when I’d tried so hard to be a woman of the Word for so many years. I was so angry — inside — I could almost choke on it.
R lost his job in May 2017, and we filed for permanent and total disability.
And we waited. And waited. And … waited — only to get a rejection letter in August 2017. “Everybody is denied on the first go-round,” attorney friends told us. We filed an appeal. And waited some more.
Meanwhile, I began to worry about more obstacles — like making my mortgage payment. Putting groceries on the table. Buying the kids clothes for school. Paying down the mounting medical bills. Putting gas in my car. Small things, in the grand scheme of things, but big and looming and consuming when you’re a family of four working with one income.
I found out I was pregnant in October 2017. It was not a planned pregnancy. Though it was a surprise pregnancy, I remained optimistic.
I suffered a miscarriage in early December, and would go on to have two invasive, degrading, emotional medical procedures in connection with the loss of the pregnancy.
I was still so, so angry. I would visit the nearby beach and scream into the wind — and then get even madder when it didn’t answer me back. Just an FYI: punching the wind is probably not a good look on your average person with a relative amount of sanity left.
Meanwhile, my husband and I were still working through the residuals of our marital difficulties. I was afloat, but I could barely think straight with everything on my plate. Channelling “Finding Nemo’s” Dory, I continued to “just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”
I was sick of swimming. I just wanted to rest. I just wanted things to be OK, and “normal,” whatever that was. I wasn’t even sure I knew what that was anymore, or if I ever had.
Christmas was right around the corner, and I wasn’t even sure how I was going to afford it that year. It literally came down to paying my mortgage for the month of December, or buying my two children — then ages 5 and 10 — Christmas gifts.
My children still believe in Santa Claus, I’d think to myself. What was I supposed to do if they woke up and realized that the Big Guy had skipped our house? It was a no-brainer: I skipped December’s mortgage payment.
We didn’t realize that a big Christmas present was on its way.
R got approval for his disability just days before the holiday, and we found out that he would be eligible for back pay to the tune of nearly 12 months’ worth.
Social Security had finally come to the conclusion that a bevy of Johns Hopkins professionals had drawn nearly a year prior: that R was — and would likely always be — disabled in many ways as a result of the tumor and surgery.
A change in the tide
We received the Social Security payments in January and were able to dig ourselves out of the financial abyss the surgery had dug for us.
With a bit of the financial burden off my back, I began to breathe easier. I began to talk with God in a more civil tone, and he seemed to forgive me for being so angry all the time. I like to think so, anyway.
R and I, now at the forefront of our own problems, worked on ourselves and the marriage for months and months. For awhile, we couldn't get out of our own way. However, time went by and we were able to address the marriage from a pragmatic perspective, and did grapple with ending the 14-year union since things both medically and financially were more stable.
He went to therapy. I went to therapy. I discovered that the therapist I’d chosen at random was a devout Christian who was simply delighted to integrate Christian-based counseling into our sessions.
Days went by, and I kept swimming, and one day I simply woke up and realized I wasn’t angry anymore. Not at anyone, or anything. I had unconsciously made my peace with God through prayer and petition and therapy, and thanked Him for standing by me, silently letting me rage and seethe and make my own mess of things in my own special kind of way before gently handing me the figurative broom and dustpan and patting me, His prized daughter, on the head.
He never moved, I realized.
R began to accept his disabilities as routine, and became more at peace with them. He realized that though he'd continue to suffer day to day complications of the surgery still, he escaped with his life.
I forgave R and we decided to put the past behind us. The endlessly happy children, thankfully, appeared to remain oblivious and were never any the wiser to the marital discord.
This year, I’m thankful for pain, and God’s unending grace. I’m thankful for it because it ultimately ended up saving a life, a marriage, a family, and far more than I can name here.
R was baptized into the church on Sunday of his own accord. It was a beautiful and sunny day with little to no wind to punch.